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MISA-Zimbabwe statement on continued use of criminal defamation laws
October 22, 2012

MISA-Zimbabwe notes with grave concern the upsurge in the number of cases involving the arrests of journalists for criminal defamation at the instigation of public officials.

The resort to criminal defamation charges by public officials undermines and curbs the media's watchdog role over the three arms of the state. It also erodes citizens' right to freedom of expression and access to information.

There is no reasonable justification for retaining this globally discredited law. The retention of these criminal defamation laws can only be for purposes of shielding public officials from robust media scrutiny by instilling fear among journalists through threats of imprisonment for those who dare expose transgressions of those who hold public office.

In essence, this archaic and undemocratic law is simply there to limit citizens' rights and ability to hold public officials accountable through the media, which is inimical to good, transparent and accountable democracy.

While the retention and increased application of criminal defamation legislation is emblematic of the authorities' intolerance of free expression, it also lays bare government's complete disregard of its democratic obligations as enunciated in regional and international conventions on freedom of expression.

Zimbabwe is a state party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 9 of African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and Banjul Declaration on the Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa, which guarantee and protect freedom of expression.

Recent cases involve the arrest of community news activist Kudakwashe Matura who was arrested in Kariba on 8 September 2012, Daily News editor Stanley Gama, and his deputy Chris Goko, who were also arrested on the same day in Harare.

Another journalist, Nhau Mangirazi was on 17 October 2012 summoned to appear at Karoi police station in a suspected criminal defamation case following the publication of story in the Weekly Mirror of 21 September 2012 titled: chief terrorises headman. The editor of the Weekly Mirror, Dennis Kagonye, was also questioned in connection with the same story by police in Karoi on 16 October 2012.

These cases are in addition to nine other cases of criminal defamation that MISA-Zimbabwe has recorded since 2011 to date, some of which are still pending before the courts.

Criminal defamation has thus become the weapon of choice against media freedom and freedom of expression. This runs counter to spirited calls by the African Commission on Human Peoples' Rights' Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, Advocate Pansy Tlakula, for member states to repeal all criminal defamation laws and provisions.

It is MISA-Zimbabwe's firm conviction that criminal defamation laws have no place in modern democracies and should thus be scrapped. In modern and civilized democracies complaints against the media are amicably handled by alternative adjudication bodies like Zimbabwe's own Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe or through civil action laws, as opposed to criminalising free expression, which is key to the exercise and enjoyment of fundamental human rights.

MISA Zimbabwe therefore unreservedly calls for the urgent repeal of provisions on criminal defamation as enshrined in the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act as this impinges on the fundamental right to access, receive, impart and share information on issues of public interest.

Visit the MISA-Zimbabwe fact sheet

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